Why Are Young People So Angry?

In the '60s, indignant kids agitated for change. Today, pissed-off teens just want to be on YouTube.

I started out drafting a funny little sarcastic blog for today, but I can’t put my mind back to it; last Monday’s school shooting in Chardon, Ohio stopped me in my tracks. One minute, it’s a typical start to a normal school day, teens going where they normally go, looking for their friends, some still half asleep. The next minute, one of their classmates is shooting up the cafeteria. Just like that, the timelines of their lives now include being witnesses to, and possibly victims of, a human-induced catastrophe.

A classmate opening fire on us during the school day was not on the long list of my parents’ worries, but it is a legitimate parental concern for my generation. Nothing is unthinkable with the likes of Columbine in our collective consciousness. What if my kid is at the wrong place at the wrong time? Whoever thought the wrong place could be school?

Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, there have been at least 60 shootings in schools or on college campuses. Before that, even incidences like the one last week at John Whittier Elementary, here in Philadelphia, weren’t on our radar. That wasn’t a rampage, but the potential was sobering; the teacher saw what looked like a handgun in a fifth grader’s backpack. It was a pellet gun, but why does a fifth grader have any kind of gun at school? Parents and grandparents gathered outside, and before they even spoke, their faces registered a palpable combination of panic and fury.

My stomach became an instant stew of nausea last Monday when I saw the footage of parents rushing through the chaos outside of Chardon High School. One mother’s body shook with relief as she spotted her son. She charged at him with open arms, and even though he was a big strapping jock, bigger than she, he fell limp and sobbing into her embrace.

The school’s football coach, Tom Hall, did what we hope the people responsible for protecting our kids would do: He threw himself in harm’s way and chased the young gunman, TJ Lane, out of the building and down the street, thus ending the shooting spree by getting the killer out of school. Teary and still shocked, Hall later told the press, “I don’t know why it happened.” Such a simple statement, but packed with complex questions about why unbridled rage is a defining characteristic of this rising generation.

Our kids are pissed, but unlike their hippie grandparents, our young people aren’t using their anger for good. The image of a mob of boys punching a guy through an open cab window is brazenly terroristic, but even worse than lashing out against the community, is the brutality they inflict upon each other: as cold-hearted bystanders who cheer on a beat-down, so they can record it on on their phones and race to get it on YouTube; as perpetrators, coming to school fully intending to shoot the loaded gun in their backpack; or, in the case of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, as tormentors, to the extent that the pain of being bullied by his peers superseded his desire to live.

It’s clearly not a socioeconomic problem, not just inner-city punks with nothing better to do. It’s happening in the swankiest of schools, in towns that look like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and it’s a lot of despair for people who haven’t yet lived a quarter of their lives.

I have to be honest and say that I believe we’re shortchanging our teenagers in the boundaries department. Everything is up for discussion. We’ve relinquished our right and duty to simply tell them, “no,” and leave it at that. We’re quick to point fingers at fellow parents, teachers, coaches or other kids; it’s never our kid, our parenting, or lack thereof.

We pretend we don’t know that our kids live secret lives through unchecked technology; we convince ourselves that they can handle it all, but the news cycle is full of proof that they can’t. Sometimes they’re in over their heads for a while before we figure it out, if we ever figure it out at all.

As that boy collapsed into his mother outside of Chardon High School, it was his boyishness that got the best of me. He’s not a grown-up, but somewhere on the bridge, like the rest of his peers, taking the scary, shaky walk from childhood to adulthood, acting like they don’t want us, but needing us more than they can say.